The US National Institutes of Health says that universities have fired scientists and refunded grant money as a result of the agency’s efforts to enfore a requirement that grantees report foreign ties, reports Science. The agency says these actions have occurred more than has been publicly reported so far.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has sent about 180 letters to more than 60 US institutions regarding scientists it believes have broken grant rules for disclosing all sources of funding, according to Science. The investigation led to the dismissals of researchers, such as the resignation or termination of three faculty members at MD Anderson Cancer Center and others at Emory University.
Michael Lauer, head of NIH’s extramural research program, tells Science that the investigations may lead to the US government banning specific individuals from receiving federal funding. “We are still reasonably early on in the process and for a number of cases we don’t know where we’ll end up,” he says.
The NIH’s extramural research program employs about 1,300 trained scientists who are each assigned a set of grants to oversee, according to Science. They look for affiliation and funding discrepancies between the documents submitted with the grants and what’s reported in published papers.
These investigations led NIH to send letters to institutions in August 2018 to inform them about their findings, which in some cases uncovered individuals who spent significant amounts of time overseas and who also received large amounts of funding from foreign agencies. “Some vice presidents for research and deans have told us that they were surprised, shocked, and horrified when they learned about [these arrangements],” Lauer tells Science. “They said they had no idea some of their employees were spending 4, 6, 8 months away from their institution.”
In some cases, the time spent on NIH projects does not add up with other responsibilities required in their roles. This has led to some universities refunding the NIH for salary paid for time that faculty spent outside of the university not working on NIH projects, says Lauer.
Lauer tells Science that the 180 cases currently being investigated are at institutions all around the US. “Most of the scientists are well-funded, meaning they have multiple NIH grants,” he says to Science. “Most are ethnically Chinese, although some of our more serious cases are not ethnically Chinese.” Lauer says it’s not the “specific conduct” they are focusing on, but the “failure to disclose it.”